Gymnastics is a graceful and artistic sport that requires a combination of strength, balance, agility, and muscle coordination, usually performed on specialized apparatus. Gymnasts perform sequences of movements requiring flexibility, endurance, and kinesthetic awareness, such as handsprings, handstands, split leaps, aerials and cartwheels.
Gymnastics as we know it dates back to ancient Greece. The early Greeks practiced gymnastics to prepare for war. Activities like jumping, running, discus throwing, wrestling, and boxing helped develop the muscles needed for hand-to-hand combat. Additional fitness practices used by the ancient Greeks included methods for mounting and dismounting a horses and a variety of circus performance skills.
Gymnastics became a central component of ancient Greek education and was mandatory for all students. Gymnasia, buildings with open-air courts where the training took place, evolved into schools where gymnastics, rhetoric, music, and mathematics were taught. The ancinet Olympic Games were born near this time.
As the Roman Empire ascended, Greek gymnastics for was more or less turned into military training. In 393 AD the Emperor Theodosius abolished the Olympic Games completely. The games had become corrupt, and gymnastics, along with other sports declined. For centuries, gymnastics was all but forgotten.
In the late eighteenth and early nineteenth centuries two pioneer physical educators, Johann Friedrich GutsMuth and Friedrich Ludwig Jahn created exercises for boys and young men on sseveral apparatus they had designed. This innovation ultimately led to what is considered modern gymnastics. As a result, Friedrich Jahn became known as the “father of gymnastics”. Jahn introduced the horizontal bar, parallel bars, side horse with pommels, balance beam, ladder, and vaulting horse.
In the early nineteenth century, educators in the United States followed suit and adopted German and Swedish gymnastics training programs. By the early twentieth century, the armed services began publishing drill manuals featuring all manner of gymnastic exercises. According to the US Army Manual of Physical Drill, these important drills provided proper instruction for the bodies of active young men.
As time went by, however, military activity moved away from hand-to-hand combat and toward fighter planes and contemporary computer-controlled weapons. As a result of the development of modern warfare, gymnastics training as the mind and body connection, so important for the Greek, German, and Swedish educational traditions, began to lose force. Gymnastics once again took on the aura of being a competitive sport.
By the end of the nineteenth century, men’s gymnastics was popular enough to be included in the first modern Olympic Games held in 1896. The sport was a little different from what we currently know as gymnastics however. Up until the early 1950s, both national and international competitions involved a changing variety of exercises the modern gymnast may find a bit odd such as synchronized team floor calisthenics, rope climbing, high jumping, running, and horizontal ladder just to name a few.
Women first started to participate in gymnastics events in the 1920s and the first women’s Olympic competition was held in the 1928 Games in Amsterdam, although the only event was synchronized calisthenics. Combined exercises for women were first held in 1928, and the 1952 Olympics featured the first full regime of events for women.
By the 1954 Olympic Games apparatus and events for both men and women had been standardized in modern format, and scoring standards, including a point system from 1 to 10, were implemented.
Modern Men’s gymnastics events are scored on an individual and team basis, and presently include the floor exercise, horizontal bar, parallel bars, rings, pommel horse, vaulting, and the all-around, which combines the scores of the other six events.
Women’s gymnastic events include balance beam, uneven parallel bars, combined exercises, floor exercises, vaulting, and rhythmic sportive gymnastics.
Until 1972, gymnastics for men emphasized power and strength, while women performed routines focused on grace of movement. That year, however, a 17-year-old Soviet gymnast named Olga Korbut captivated a television audience with her innovative and explosive routines.
Nadia Comaneci received the first perfect score, at the 1976 Olympic Games held in Montreal, Canada. She was coached by the famous Romanian, Bela Karolyi. Comaneci scored four of her perfect tens on the uneven bars, two on the balance beam and one in the floor exercise. Nadia will always be remembered as “a fourteen year old, ponytailed little girl” who showed the world that perfection could be achieved.
Mary Lou Retton became America’s sweetheart with her two perfect scores and her gold medal in the All-Around competition in front of the home crowd in the 1984 Olympic Games in Los Angeles.
These days gymnastics is a household name and many children participate in gymnastics at one time or another as they grow up. Olga Korbut, Nadia Comaneci, and Mary Lou Retton, along with all those gymnasts since, have helped popularize women’s competitive gymnastics, making it one of the most watched Olympic events. Both men’s and women’s gymnastics now attract considerable international interest, and excellent gymnasts can be found on every continent.